Prof Langer recruited a group of elderly men all in their late 70s or 80s for what she described as a “week of reminiscence”. They were not told they were taking part in a study into ageing, an experiment that would transport them 20 years back in time.
The psychologist wanted to know if she could put the mind back 20 years would the body show any changes.
The men were split into two groups. They would both be spending a week at a retreat outside of Boston.
But while the first group, the control, really would be reminiscing about life in the 50s, the other half would be in a timewarp. Surrounded by props from the 50s the experimental group would be asked to act as if it was actually 1959.
They watched films, listened to music from the time and had discussions about Castro marching on Havana and the latest Nasa satellite launch – all in the present tense.
Dr Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by placing them in an environment connected with their own past lives.
And she was determined to remove any prompt for them to behave as anything but healthy individuals. The retreat was not equipped with rails or any gadgets that would help older people. Right from the off she was determined to ensure they looked after themselves.
One man discarded his walking stick
When they got off the bus at the retreat, Prof Langer did not help the men carry their suitcases in. “I told them they could move them an inch at a time, they could unpack them right at the bus and take up a shirt at a time.”
The men were entirely immersed in an era when they were 20 years younger.
Understandably, Prof Langer herself had doubts. “You have to understand, when these people came to see if they could be in the study and they were walking down the hall to get to my office, they looked like they were on their last legs, so much so that I said to my students ‘why are we doing this? It’s too risky’.”
But soon the men were making their own meals. They were making their own choices. They weren’t being treated as incompetent or sick.
Pretty soon she could see a difference. Over the days, Prof Langer began to notice that they were walking faster and their confidence had improved. By the final morning one man had even decided he could do without his walking stick.
As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of “touch” American football.
Obviously this kind of anecdotal evidence does not count for much in a study.
But Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.
Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better. Both groups showed improvements, but the experimental group improved the most.
Prof Langer believes that by encouraging the men’s minds to think younger their bodies followed and actually became “younger”.
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